The 40-mile Slow Way, pursued by wee beasties


Slow Ways come in all sizes and challenges, and Jo Bennie continues to strike out solo on the no-joke Cairngorms ones. Here, complete with midges, cold soup, and a mountain with a rude name, is her latest trip

A year ago I found myself standing at a bus stop at Ballater, dripping gently.  I had been tracing Balauc one and Aucbre two for two days, traversing fording streams in spate and climbing paths that had become rivers.  I phoned the other half to confirm I was safe. The Queen had died at Balmoral. Ah.

Braclo one a year later (5 Sep 2023) saw me coming off the bus at Braemar after four hours’ travelling from Dundee. The Cairngorm mountains were still in high summer, the only clues to the impending autumn were the slight change of colour to the trees, the blinding lowness of the sun, the absence of swallow, swift and martin and the lengthening of the nights towards the equinox. I walked out of the village along the Old Military Road to Glen Callater for the night.

A brief note on the Mounth: imagine a squarish cake, this is the Cairngorms. Cut a small rectangular slice out of the bottom right corner, this is the Mounth. The cuts are the Dee valley to the north, and the Glen Shee Cairnwell pass to the west. Less craggy and lower than the main Cairngorm plateau the Mounth is an undulating land sea, bites of corries to the south marking the heads of the Angus Glens. Rising out of the Mounth are the slopes of Lochnagar and the conical peak of Mount Keen.

Fearsome beasties

Back at Braclo one, I wound my way up the glen alongside the Callater Burn as it ran noisily over massive boulders and great flat plates of granite. Stopping at the bridge I doused myself in midge spray, pulled down my sleeves and tightened my midge net. The midge forecast was only 1 out of 4 but the bite of the fearsome beastie gifts me welts and blisters. The dense black cloud whined around my ears as I threw everything into my tent and contorted myself to decant my gear. Cold lentil soup for tea – it wasn’t worth the midge bites to cook up – and a fitful night’s sleep.  

Loch Callater

Pursued the next morning by my bitey attendants I threw all my gear onto the bridge, stuffed my pack and made for Callater Stables bothy. Trudging up the curves of the glen I was glad to see the Stables roofs coming into view behind a hummock. On the shore of Loch Callater someone was taking pictures before they turned up onto a path round the corries, their sleeping bag and mat sprawled on the platform inside.

Taking the bothy water bottles down to the burn I teetered on the boulders to reach the faster water. The day was still, clear and warm, the slightest breeze cat’s pawing the loch and dispersing the midges. Porridge and coffee ready, I luxuriated on a bench in the sun. Soon, time to slap on the factor 50 and utilise the compost toilet, wonderful not to have to cut a cathole through tough roots.

Hiking therapy

Turning back onto Braclo one for the path up to the Mounth I passed an elderly couple, their dog wriggling under the gate. I hope I’m still on the hills when I’m older. Crossing the stile carefully with my heavy pack, I took the clear stony path climbing steeply up through the heather. I started just as the black rope of an adder slid off the path, and apologised for disturbing its morning sunbathe.  

The punishing effort of hiking is my therapy. It derails the incessant jabbering of my brain. I can think only of the next step, the placement of boot and pole

Climbing above the northern flank of Loch Callater the views rewarded the fierce effort of every step. As I climbed I could feel the work doing its job; the punishing effort of hiking is my therapy. It derails the incessant jabbering of my brain. I can think only of the next step, the placement of boot and pole, the pressure of the hip-belt and pull of the pack. I climb on.

Below me Braclo one followed Jock’s Road along the shore of Loch Callater. Another day I would have left my tent there and climbed up above the glen floor to Loch Kander suspended like a dish of water 100 metres up. Today as I climbed, a new view of Loch Kander slid into view opposite; from above, nestled below its corrie, diminished with distance, the waterfalls, boggy grass, stone, peat and frogs in the mist were memories that were tangible and itchy in my feet.

From the Stuic

To my right was the wet climb of Jock’s Road over to Crow Craigies. I considered working my way along the ridge to Falfernie and down to Glen Doll, but believing I would reach Lochnagar’s summits (I didn’t) I carried on.  Eventually I lost sight of the glen, passing out onto the rolling plateau of the Mounth.

Small pile of faeces…

Lochnagar. I don’t know if it is unique, but so far it’s the only mountain I’ve walked that isn’t named for its peak. Lochnagar (Lochan na Gaire, to give it its Sunday name) translates as ‘the lochan of the noisy sound’ and is the name of the lochan lying at the foot of the mighty granite faces of the mountain’s corrie faces: Eagle Crag, the Buttresses, the Pinnacle. A profile so distinctive it is easy to pick out from great distances as it curves a mighty spur of the Mounth above Dubh Loch. The actual highest point of Lochnagar is Cac Carn Beag which tops out at 1155 metres. Cac Carn Beag translates as, well, to be polite, ‘small pile of faeces’. I can see why they went with Lochnagar…

Walking the plateau towards the summits I suddenly realised I was heading away from Glen Doll. I considered my options. If I did go as far as Cac Carn Beag it would be seven miles back to Broad Cairn where I planned to camp. Although I’d only covered 4½ miles since Callater Stables it had been a tough 4½. So I turned off to the Stuic: a bite out of the north side of Lochnagar above Loch nan Euan.

My lodgings amongst the rocks

I sat and ate lunch perched above a steep slope of great boulders, the corrie cliff to my right and a sea of peaks ahead. Sitting above the great drop I felt “space vast and quiet and strong”. “Time… a benediction and space the windswept playground of thought” (Neil M Gunn). 

The dawn light came up gold over Loch Esk, tucked high above Glen Doll under Crow Craigies

So, back round the crescent above the south side of Dubh Loch, the path rising and falling over Cairn Bannock and Cairn of Gowal through boulder fields to the frost-cracked tor capping Broad Cairn. Among the massive rocks I found a remarkably flattish bit of ground and pitched the tent, using my rock pegs in the thin skin of soil. It was another fitful night’s sleep as the tent flapped in the wind, but setting my alarm for 5.30am to watch the dawn come up delivered. The light came up gold over Loch Esk, tucked high above Glen Doll under Crow Craigies.  

Sunrise from Broad Cairn

I wouldn’t summit camp again, it’s too noisy, but I’m glad I did it. And I had misjudged – I thought it was only five miles down to the Ranger Base at Glen Doll but it was seven and a half miles and I was meeting my people at 12 so no time to cook up breakfast. Slapping antihistamine and sun cream on, I doused myself in midge spray and began down the hill.

A moving target

I couldn’t discern my way off the hill but I could see the path far below as it followed the ridge. I decided to head straight for the path but as I picked my way unsteadily across boulders shifting and tilting underfoot I reconsidered. Turning back I found (and lost again, several times) the path that threaded through the boulder fields of the shoulder of Little Crag on to a better path that led down to a shed where I scarfed a packet of jelly snakes. The midges manifested out of the air. I turned onto the path down to Glen Doll. If I kept moving they couldn’t land on me…

Early morning over Dubh Loch

The path to the bridge below where the Esk hurtles through a gorge of red-stained granite from the Glittering Skellies steepened and became rougher. At the Burn of Altcuthrie there was an easy climb down to the good cold water. I drank, and filled my water bottle.

River relief

Walking down from there to the Ranger’s Base was a comfortingly familiar route but between heat and haste it was a struggle. The track winds gently downhill along and above the South Esk, across rough grass past Moulzie farm where two highland ponies grazed ahead of the stalking season. Trudging along the forest track I passed the remnants of plantations shattered by Storm Arwen, through the scent of hot pine under midday sun.

Finally, I looped round the end of the track onto the bridge to the car park. Red tape marked one end. Someone had misjudged their turn.

With great pleasure I dumped my pack, hauled off my boots and headed across the picnic ground, discarding my clothes on the bank and stepping into the biting relief of the river to rinse off the journey. I sat and let the water soothe my feet for a bit. Clean clothes, Cullen Skink and coffee at the Glen Clova hotel. Then home, tired but feeling accomplished… and deciding camping during midge season wasn’t much fun.

Jo Bennie

Born in Cambridge, Jo has lived in or near Dundee in the northeast of Scotland since 1993 when she went to university there. The last three years have seen Jo take to the hills in Scotland, and she credits them as her teachers.

“I began by climbing the Sidlaw Hills above Dundee close to my house in Carnoustie. Next came overnight solo camping in the Angus Glens. I will continue to return to their quiet loveliness and find new sanctuaries among the ‘big hills’ of the Cairngorms. The wild camping and the movement forward in solitude brings me respite from a life complicated by autism, bipolar and long covid. For the only thing of concern to be the next step forwards. Through heather and bog and forest in the glories of the Scottish weather, consistent only in its mercurial changeability.”

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